Parresia author, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, interviews British-Sierra Leonean author Aminatta Forna. Abubakar is the author of “The Whispering Trees” .
British-Sierra Leonean writer, Aminatta Forna, author of The Memory of Love and The Devil that Danced on the Water was in Lagos recently where Sunday Trust sat with her and she talked about her Commonwealth Writers Prize win, why she chose to write about the war in her country and why she left the BBC to be a full time writer.
You have been writing fiction and non-fiction for some time now. How did you discover writing?
Well, I actually discovered story-telling before I discovered writing. I was talking with Helon Habila the other day and it was the same for him, he actually told stories before he wrote them down. And that was the same for me. I always told stories before, at some point later on, I decided to write the stories down.
How did you make the transition from story-telling to writing?
It took a long time, because I came from the kind of Sierra Leonean family where my father couldn’t tolerate anything else but Medicine or Law. I studied law for three years. Because I did want to tell stories I thought I could become a journalist. I thought that could be the way through for me. It wasn’t really. Journalism is different from writing literature. But nevertheless, I worked with the BBC for ten years, until I left to write my family story. In fact, I guess it was probably the war that gave me the spur to give up journalism entirely and devote myself to writing, first of all a memoir on my father, who had been a political prisoner, and had had the foresight to see what would happen in Sierra Leone if they carried on the way they were. Then two novels, both of them deal with the war ,but the second deals directly with the war.
How difficult was it writing The Devil that Danced on the Water? It is a very personal story.
Yeah, it was very difficult. I went back to Sierra Leone in the year 2000 when the war was still going on, so it was difficult in every kind of way; trying to find my family members, the country really, really having been devastated by the war. It was not only difficult and potentially dangerous, it was also emotionally very difficult to see a country ruined that much and then to trace the antecedents of that kind of man-made disaster back to the kind of things my father had talked about in the 1970s when he said these things would happen. So it was all very tough really and especially since none of it needed to have happened.
Your father was executed by the state on trumped-up charges. It must be difficult dealing with that as a child. How did you cope?
Well, children don’t know anything different from the world that they are given, you know. We kept having to leave the country, my father was there and then he wasn’t there because he was in prison a great deal in my childhood. But I guess we didn’t know that life was any different for everybody else so we tackled it in the moment. And you know, I used to immerse myself in things a great deal whatever it was, whether it was books or I used to love dogs, I always used to have the capacity to immerse myself in something. I guess that was how I coped with it.
I wonder if writing The Devil that Danced on the Water was a way of dealing with it …
You wish [laughs] all that psycho babble [laughs] No. I mean, it’s something I get very frustrated with because to me, writing is much bigger than psycho therapy. If you want psychotherapy, go to a psychotherapist. I wanted to tell a story that I thought was incredibly important and actually, my sister foresaw [something] that I thought about, she actually warned me. She said, Be careful that what you find out might be worse than we think. I really can’t stress enough that when I teach something like non-fiction [writing], there are people who come thinking they are going to find a kind of catharsis from writing and I say you just have to deal with that separately. Don’t think you can deal with that by writing. They are two different activities and you can’t bring that to the page. The reader really doesn’t want to know about your mental break down [laughs].
You had to move a lot as a child, growing up in Iran, Thailand and other places. How did that impact on your writing?
Well, I have always been asked questions about being different from other people, but since I have no idea what it’s like being other people I never can’t tell. From talking to people who have never lived anywhere else in the world, I would guess the way it has impacted my writing is that it has given men an international perspective and I also guess I know that there is not one way of doing things, and I know how different people can be. On the other hand I know that fundamentally everybody is exactly the same. And usually everything has an explanation. Whatever seems bizarre to one group of people as committed by another, there is usually an explanation; you just have to look for it.
Was it a difficult decision to leave the BBC and focus solely on writing?
It wasn’t difficult at all?
So you are that passionate about writing?
And I’ve also had enough of television. [Laughs]. Television is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s very hard work and I wasn’t really happy with the stories we were doing, particularly when it came to Africa. I just felt that we were really telling the same story the same way. We were generally doing everybody a disservice, you know, the continent and its countries and peoples and the viewers who were so fed up with all the negative stories coming out of Africa that they turned away. When I was at the BBC I pleaded with them to allow me make documentaries about Africa that will be more truthful. Before I left, I managed to make a series of documentaries. The last one I did was The Lost Library of Timbuktu, but it was kind of getting frustrating.
And now the monuments are being destroyed . . .
I know . . .
How does that make you feel?
It’s really depressing. I think I will have to go to Mali. I have been asked to go to Mali to write about it, so after I leave here. I am applying for my Malian visa at the moment, so after I get it, I am going to go there.
Aren’t you afraid of the security situations there?
I am not going to go into the war zone [laughs]. I made one documentary about Malian arts some years back and then I did The Lost Library of Timbuktu, I got to know the head of the museum in Mali, he’s a man called Samuel Sidibe who has singlehandedly fought to protect, elevate, conserve that nation’s arts. So my plan is to go meet with him and he’s been trying to get a campaign [going], he’s been pleading with UNESCO to try and save the monuments. So I doubt very much I am going to go to where it’s dangerous, that’s madness [laughs] but I will go.
So most likely your next work is going to focus on this issue in Mali?
I’m going to write a piece for The Economist Magazine. I am going to write a short piece for them, I mean that’s a short term thing. I just finished a novel actually . . .
Wow, another one?
Yes. Actually, while I have been here [in Nigeria] I have been having a little discourse with my editor. I am going to meet with him to discuss – he’s very happy with it, thank goodness – and then I am going to do the final edits.
Are you very happy with the novel?
I can never really tell. Usually, I’m just happy that I’ve got to the end of it [laughs]. I always find it very difficult to tell if I have written something good or not. We are very anxious people.
And yet your books have been warmly received . . .
Yes, that’s seems to be going ok. I don’t know a single writer, who finishes a book and thinks, Yeah, that’s brilliant. Everybody finishes his work and feels relieved that they have finished but also feel completely nervous whether it’s any good or not, whether someone who reads it is going to say, This is a load of rubbish or whether someone who reads it is going to say this is great.
So, are you saying that you feel nervous about your own works?
Yes, when I hand it in to my editor. You face it every time you have to hand in to your agent, your editor and when it’s published and goes out to be reviewed, you just have to take it on the chin. People can attack you in public and say you are a terrible writer. That’s your worst fears, that they will say you are a terrible writer and it’s very gruelling.
How do you take negative reviews?
Fortunately, I haven’t had one [laughs]. I haven’t had any negative reviews meaning somebody is just slicing it and say, nobody writes a review and say this is so wonderful, they usually critique the book and then you get an overall [opinion]. Overall, my reviews have been good. I have a way to deal with it this way; you look for two things. If it speaks to you and you go, Oh, I didn’t think about that. And then the second one is if things cluster around a particular area, if it’s three or four critics all say the same thing, then you will say, Oh, let me have a look at that. And I think that’s a sensible way to approach it. There are some things which come down to cultural differences, different experiences. For example, several critics in Britain said that there were too many coincidences in The Memory of Love, now everybody in Sierra Leone didn’t see this as a problem at all because we are a very, very small country and everybody knows everybody, and the middle class is miniscule. What a British critic who lives in a city of seven and a half million people thinks as a coincidence of people bumping into each other, when you live in a city of 800, 000, it’s no coincidence. The fact of the book, the point of the book was that. The other difference was that there was a civil war and Britain has only known international wars where you go somewhere else and fight it and come back, right? The whole point of a civil war is that it’s the people you know who are doing it and when the war is over, you are left with it. That was the point I was trying to make by the fact that their lives kept colliding. So you can’t listen to all the criticism, but you should be concerned if it’s clustering and if it speaks to you.
Yet, The Memory of Love won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. How did that feel?
Of course, I am very pleased and proud. I so didn’t expect to win the Commonwealth Prize. I hadn’t even prepared anything to say, I was just sitting on the stage and there was one writer of much greater stature than me and everyone was expecting one of these guys. So I hadn’t prepared anything but fortunately something came to me. But prizes, on the whole, that’s another thing that writers find very unnerving. There’s a lot of tension when the announcements are made, a very tensed time, and when people who have written very well are not recognised, that’s also very difficult. But prizes are a luxury, to be honest, they are a luxury and I’ve judged them, I know how very easily a good book, if one judge doesn’t like it, it’s not going to win. So you have to take it a little bit carefully. Again I think it’s the clustering. I was recently nominated for the IMPAC Awards, which is another good one. So once the book has been nominated for three major awards, I said Ok, my book’s ok.
So far most of your books have dealt with the civil war. This one you just finished writing, has it moved away from that?
No. But it has moved away from Africa. I’ve set it in the Yugoslavian war. Thought I should bring it closer to the Europeans. Because I write for both audiences,, European and African Audiences and only African writers think about this, western writers never think about this. I write for both. Some African writers don’t write for western audiences but I write for both. There were one or two things with The Memory of Love, which is western readers feeling like this things didn’t happen anywhere else but in Africa. The more intelligent readers, of course, saw it as a comment on everywhere. But I was getting a little frustrated that war was seen as an African problem even though there’s been this huge war in Europe, which shows it’s not just an African problem. It’s surprising how people have turned themselves away from it. But also I wanted my African readers to understand that these things happen elsewhere too. Sometimes, I feel we get taught to hate ourselves in Africa and it’s really encouraged by western media, by NGOs, [Africans] don’t have any kind of pride, they are losers, you can’t make it work. So, I thought it was important for my African readers to see that these things happen elsewhere and that there are parallels and we can all learn from there.
As a full time writer, what’s your typical day like?
Ah, it depends what cycle I’m in. When I’m writing, I virtually don’t do anything else, I try not to do anything else. Increasingly there are things that you have to do. Go give an interview [laughs]. But I try to clear my time as much as possible, I try to keep my appointments in one day or one week and try to have long stretches that I can just write. I do my admin, answer my emails and that kind of stuff until about ten, then I pretty much write all day. It can go well, it can go badly, I try to have a word count, I think that’s the journalist in me, it gives me a sort of target to aim at. It may all get re-written the next day, but if it’s not there in the first place, there’s nothing. My husband comes home around six. I sleep, I write, I sleep again. If I have published a book, like last year, there was huge publicity and I hardly had time to write. The Memory of Love had done well and I had all these travel that I didn’t plan to do. So mostly, you are just being on a plane and journalists too, coming for interviews. Kazuo Ishiguro said it takes him two year to write a book and three years to publicize it. So there is so much to do.